Delegation must not carry SNWA’s water for Las Vegas pipeline

August 23, 2019 4:30 am

From left, Clark County Commissioners Jim Gibson and Marilyn Kirkpatrick and North Las Vegas Councilman Scott Black during a SNWA board meeting in July. (Nevada Current file photo)

Officials at the Southern Nevada Water Authority want the state’s congressional delegation to do their dirty work for them.

A legislative proposal that serves as a federal wish list for Clark County–– including the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) –– has provisions which would partially enable and authorize the long-contested Las Vegas water grab pipeline.  The proposal –– as outlined in a discussion draft put forward by Clark County –– circumvents bedrock environmental laws in order to pave the way for the 300-mile pumping and piping project to siphon 58 billion gallons of water annually from Eastern Nevada in perpetuity.

Simply put, this proposed language would help turn the Great Basin into a water colony owned by the SNWA. Its gargantuan $15 billion price tag (in 2011 dollars) highlights SNWA’s blatant disregard for its own ratepayers –– many of whom live on low or fixed incomes. Those costs could mean water bills skyrocketing in Las Vegas while wildlife, landscapes, businesses, local governments and tribes suffer in Eastern Nevada.

The Great Basin Water Network –– a strange-bedfellows coalition of conservationists, rural leaders, tribes, agricultural interests, and others rallying to defeat the pipeline –– has fought in federal court to defeat the proposal, which has been found to violate the Clean Water Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. This proposed bill language, if enacted by Congress, removes those bedrock legal barriers, opening a new lane for the stalled project and potentially eliminating the requirement that the pipeline’s Right of Way be subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Clark County’s draft proposal demonstrates that the Water Authority, after being stymied in court time and again, is eager to re-write the laws to ram through a project that’s been fought over for 30 years.

The pro-pipeline measures in the County’s draft of the bill, which has yet to be introduced by the delegation into the Congress, has been crafted by behind-the-scenes bureaucrats and lobbyists –– not county commissioners, legislators, or stakeholders like tribes and ranchers.

The provisions in question make a direct reference to the pipeline’s federal Right-of-Way application, declaring it exempt from further administrative and judicial review and erasing statutory requirements that the application be subject to the National Environmental Policy Act. It also allows transfers of public lands to the Water Authority –– lands that are currently owned by the people of the United States and guarded by laws that ensure their protection for future generations.

We’ve been successful in federal court thanks to the previously mentioned environmental laws to which Democrats pledge their allegiance in the Trump era. All we ask is that this dangerous boondoggle be subject to the laws that protect our environment and drinking water. Instead, the County’s draft reflects SNWA’s “trust-us” attitude that’s akin to letting the fox guard the henhouse.

The great irony of the Clark County Lands Bill is that it won’t just affect one county. The draft language targets Lincoln and White Pine Counties and Western Utah. It harms sacred tribal sites for the Ely Shoshone, Duckwater Shoshone, and the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation. The language helps aid in the theft of water from those who legally have rights to it under state law, setting a horrible precedent for western water politics that harkens back to Owens Valley.

Eastern Nevada’s water supply –– which mainly consists of ice-age era underground aquifers that are slowly recharged by mountain runoff –– is not a renewable resource. Once pumps start sucking water into a pipeline, those aquifers won’t hit their equilibrium ever again.  The same can be said for the wildlife, communities, and landscapes which the pipeline would decimate in places like Great Basin National Park and Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge. Ditto for the money that would fly out of the pockets of Las Vegas ratepayers.

The people of Nevada and members of our congressional delegation deserve better than what’s currently being snuck into in the Clark County public lands bill proposal by SNWA. This isn’t just a matter of removing a legislative end-run of bedrock environmental laws. It’s a matter of life and death for flora, fauna, and communities throughout the state.

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Kyle Roerink
Kyle Roerink

Kyle Roerink is executive director of Great Basin Water Network, a non-profit group that has spent decades fighting the SNWA’s 30-year effort to build the Las Vegas pipeline.